The power of the mind is something we may not think about very often, but if we consider how little power we have over our minds when we're faced with negative situations, we appreciate just how potent the mind can be. We've all been tormented by jealousy or grief or anger; we've all experienced the way such emotions can carry us away from our reasonable, day-to-day state of mind. From the Buddhist perspective, an appreciation for the mind's tremendous power is a precursor to training the mind to awaken itself.
Three activities that are essential to training our minds-hearing, contemplating, and meditating-are already quite natural to us. You hear shocking news-the new boss at work has fired you. You may have to hear it several times and ask a lot of questions before the news truly sinks in. This is hearing.
Then you think about it. You mull over the news. You may think about how it happened, trace its origins, figure out what went wrong. This is contemplating.
Then, you settle in and find you are completely absorbed in the feelings of shock and anger. You may think about getting revenge. You will doubtless fantasize many different scenarios with tremendous clarity and vivid detail. When we are carried away by strong emotions, the source of our emotional disturbance becomes our reference point. This is meditating. We find ourselves continually returning to a central reference point; we are fully absorbed. We can't escape.
The powers of hearing, contemplating and meditating are built-in, you could say. Our minds have these tendencies naturally, but when we train our minds through shamatha (mindfulness) practice, we can actually strengthen our ability to hear, our ability to contemplate, and our ability to meditate. Those abilities can be cultivated into powers that we can draw upon to free ourselves from the grip of negative emotions.
Let's use shamatha practice as an example of how hearing, contemplating, and meditating strengthen the mind. The overall view of shamatha practice is that we can strengthen our minds through meditation practice. Through regular shamatha, our minds become more resilient and more pliant, so that when we are faced with the negative emotions that used to take over our minds entirely, we are not trapped. When we meditate, we are developing the power to gain some perspective on seemingly overwhelming thoughts.
How, then, is shamatha able to work effectively on our minds? First, we hear the instructions on how to do it. Then we think about those instructions. We contemplate how it feels to place the attention on the breath and to try to keep it there. Then, we actually try it. Contemplation gives way to meditation. We sit on the cushion and use our breath as our reference point. When our mind wanders, we always return to the breath. Most of us need to hear the instructions again and again in order to remember them. And then we should mix the meditation practice with contemplation of our experience.
In this way, our view of shamatha, of training and strengthening our minds, is fully established and can be relied upon again and again. But the whole process began with proper hearing. Without proper hearing, we could well have gotten off on the wrong track and something we were calling shamatha, something we were calling meditation practice, could be taking us in an unhelpful direction. That is why hearing is emphasized first.
What is the proper attitude for hearing dharma teachings? Usually when we are listening to someone, we tend to think, "Oh, okay, I got it." We want to "get it" quickly. We are eager to apply our own viewpoint to it. But before we place our own view on what the Buddha taught, before we apply our new interpretation, first we should try to hear what is being said to us. We could let the dharma sink in and penetrate us. We could get to the point where we can drop our own baggage and listen to what is being said.
When we hear dharma teachings, we don't just listen. We listen and then we hear. Our minds have to be available for this experience. We have to take time and let the levels of subtlety sink in. We listen and remain open to the meaning, so that at some point the meaning strikes us very deeply. When we pay attention, we recognize our meditation experiences from what we've heard. When this happens, the implications for the rest of our lives are very profound. This is the first moment when we can really say that we have heard the dharma. This is a penetrating experience. This is hearing.
Another important point to remember is that hearing does not only mean going to a program at a meditation center and taking notes during the talks. Hearing also refers to study. When we read a teacher's words we are hearing the dharma. It's good to remember to hold our minds open and to pay attention when we read the dharma, the same way we would if we were attending a dharma talk.
When we actually hear the instructions on how to meditate, and when we hear the teachings on what meditation means, then that meaning penetrates us. We understand our experience through contemplating what meditation means to us. With our new-found understanding, we return to the meditation cushion and observe our experience. Eventually, we see the relationship between hearing and studying the dharma teachings and deepening our understanding of them.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage established by his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
Did You Hear?, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.
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Meditation practice awakens our trust that the wisdom and compassion that we need are already within us. It helps us to know ourselves: our rough parts and our smooth parts, our passion, aggression, ignorance and wisdom.
awakens our trust that the wisdom and compassion that we need are already
within us. It helps us to know ourselves: our rough parts and our smooth parts,
our passion, aggression, ignorance and wisdom. The reason that people harm
other people, the reason that the planet is polluted and people and animals are
not doing so well, these days is that individuals don’t know or trust or love
themselves enough. The technique of sitting meditation called
shamatha-vipashyana (“tranquillity-insight”) is like a golden key that helps us
to know ourselves.
shamatha-vipashyana meditation, we sit upright with legs crossed and eyes open,
hands resting on our thighs. Then we simply become aware of our breath as it
goes out. It requires precision to be right there with that breath. On the
other hand, it’s extremely relaxed and soft. Saying, “Be right there with the
breath as it goes out,” is the same thing as saying, “Be fully present.” Be
right here with whatever is going on. Being aware of the breath as it goes out,
we may also be aware of other things going on—sounds on the street, the light
on the walls. These things capture our attention slightly, but they don’t need
to draw us off. We can continue to sit right here, aware of the breath going
with the breath is only part of the technique. These thoughts that run through
our minds continually are the other part. We sit here talking to ourselves. The
instruction is that when you realize you’ve been thinking you label it
“thinking.” When your mind wanders off, you say to yourself, “Thinking.”
Whether your thoughts are violent or passionate or full of ignorance and
denial; whether your thoughts are worried or fearful; whether your thoughts are
spiritual thoughts, pleasing thoughts of how well you’re doing, comforting
thoughts, uplifting thoughts, whatever they are—without judgment or harshness
simply label it all “thinking,” and do that with honesty and gentleness.
on the breath is light: only about 25 percent of the awareness is on the
breath. You’re not grasping and fixating on it. You’re opening, letting the
breath mix with the space of the room, letting your breath just go out into
space. Then there’s something like a pause, a gap until the next breath goes
out again. While you’re breathing in, there could be some sense of just opening
and waiting. It is like pushing the doorbell and waiting for someone to answer.
Then you push the doorbell again and wait for someone to answer. Then probably
your mind wanders off and you realize you’re thinking again—at this point use
the labeling technique.
important to be faithful to the technique. If you find that your labeling has a
harsh, negative tone to it, as if you were saying, “Dammit!,” that you’re
giving yourself a hard time, say it again and lighten up. It’s not like trying
to shoot down the thoughts as if they were clay pigeons. Instead, be gentle.
Use the labeling part of the technique as an opportunity to develop softness
and compassion for yourself. Anything that comes up is okay in the arena of
meditation. The point is, you can see it honestly and make friends with it.
Although it is
embarrassing and painful, it is very healing to stop hiding from yourself. It
is healing to know all the ways that you’re sneaky, all the ways that you hide
out, all the ways that you shut down, deny, close off, criticize people, all
your weird little ways. You can know all of that with some sense of humor and
kindness. By knowing yourself, you’re coming to know humanness altogether. We
are all up against these things. So when you realize that you’re talking to
yourself, label it “thinking” and notice your tone of voice. Let it be
compassionate and gentle and humorous. Then you’ll be changing old stuck
patterns that are shared by the whole human race. Compassion for others begins
with kindness to ourselves.
From Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living,
by Pema Chödrön. With permission of Shambhala Publications.
The Key to Knowing Ourselvesis Meditation, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.
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Zen's Radical Conservative: John Daido Loori Roshi
Zen's Radical Conservative: John Daido Loori Roshi
By John Kain
John Daido Loori is an imaginative modernizer yet fierce upholder of the old ways of Zen. John Kain reports from Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York.
The mind- what can we say of it? Forms, created by rock shadows. -John Daido Loori Roshi
When asked how he came to Zen, Daido Roshi pauses, takes off his sage-green fedora and rubs his clean-shaven head. There's a blue, sun-faded anchor tattoo on each of his forearms—remnants of his navy days—and he moves his fingers across one of them as if tracing the map of his past. "That's easy," he says in a deep, resonant voice, "photography."
John Daido Loori Roshi was introduced to Zen techniques in the early sixties studying with the renowned photographer Minor White. "I was attracted to the way he integrated Eastern religious methods into his photography workshops," says Daido Roshi. "He taught us many things—meditation, chanting, breathing exercises. It was a very transforming thing in my life. I had an opening experience in one of his classes and eventually found my way into Zen."
Nearly forty years later, Daido Roshi—as a respected Zen teacher, accomplished photographer, writer, and avid environmentalist—continues the work of integrating Eastern and Western traditions. His signature talent is bringing ancient Buddhist forms and methods into a contemporary context, without compromising the vitality and veracity of the teachings.
Daido Roshi describes his approach at Zen Mountain Monastery, in Mt. Tremper, New York, as "radical conservatism." And says, "It goes back to the traditional principles of both Tang Dynasty and Sung Dynasty China, and brings them into play in the context of the twenty-first century." He has a healthy distrust of our consumer society and is in no hurry to exchange traditional Buddhist values for passing fads.
"I think that while there's no question Daido Roshi is engaged in the Americanization of Buddhism, he's doing it in a cautious, very protective way," says Richard Seager, associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and author of Buddhism In America. "He's been quietly doing what he does for many years now and I think people are finally beginning to recognize the validity of it, the necessity of it."
Though there is a strongly traditional and deliberate side to Daido Roshi, there is also a sense of playful openness. Sensei Jan Chozen Bays considers Daido Roshi "something of a genius when it comes to integrating Buddhism into the American context." Bays, who is Daido Roshi's dharma sister and spiritual leader of the Zen Community of Oregon, goes on to say, "What he has done in just one generation is amazing. Yet he has never lost his grand sense of humor—which I think is essential—or his playful irreverence. Daido is very careful to keep things in balance, yet he's not afraid to adjust, to experiment with the form."
Sensei Pat Enkyo O'Hara, a former student of Daido Roshi's who heads the Village Zendo in New York, agrees. According to her, Daido Roshi is "often seen as a standard bearer for the 'old ways,' yet he's also a cowboy—he's very independent and experimental in both his actions and his teachings. He's very positive about women, about connecting with the environment, and he's completely open to gays."
Central to his work is Daido Roshi's strong belief in using art as a skillful tool for teaching the dharma. "Daido Roshi understands that Zen training and creative exploration complement each other," says Kaz Tanahashi, who has been teaching Zen brush workshops at the monastery since 1986 and is the author of The Brush Mind. "The creative process is a way of uncovering our consciousness. Daido Roshi uses art as a doorway into Buddhism."
For Daido Roshi, that "doorway" is nothing but the intimacy of our own life. His writings and teachings continually dismantle the illusion of separateness—for him the worlds of art, Zen and nature are an intimate realm of seamless movement.
"We must first set down 'the pack'—the notions and positions that separate us from reality. We must take off the blinders that limit our vision and see for ourselves that originally there are no seams, flaws, organs between us and the whole phenomenal universe," Daido Roshi writes in the introduction to his book of photographs, Making Love With Light.
Daido Roshi's childhood was a difficult one; at age eight he lost his father and had to navigate the rough streets of Jersey City, New Jersey. These difficulties planted seeds of introspection and spiritual inquiry that would blossom in later years. As well, being born and raised an Italian Roman Catholic gave him a sense of tight-knit community and tradition that have served him well in his role as abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery.
At the age of sixteen he forged a birth certificate and joined the navy, returning five years later to enter college on the GI Bill. Trained as a chemist, he worked in the food industry synthesizing natural food flavors into additives, but after 17 years he became "disillusioned by the slippery ethics of his employers" and returned to his first love, photography. Over the years his photographs have appeared in numerous magazines and more than thirty one-man shows.
From the late sixties through the early seventies Daido Roshi studied with Soen Roshi, a seminal figure in early American Zen. But it wasn't until he met Maezumi Roshi—the influential Japanese Zen master who established Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1967—that Daido Roshi found his true teacher. He soon moved to California with his wife and son, immersing himself in the day-to-day duties and practice at Zen Center, eventually receiving dharma transmission (shiho) from Maezumi Roshi in 1986. But he never thought of himself as a natural. "I trust zazen because I was probably the most deluded, confused, angry, anti-religious person you could ever meet. There is no reason in heaven or hell why I should be a Zen teacher, sitting here, talking like this. All I know is I found out about zazen," he writes in The Heart of Being, his book on the Buddhist precepts.
Central to Zen is the "mind-to-mind" transmission of dharma from teacher to student. This intimacy is what keeps the teachings fresh and alive. The lineage of these mind-to-mind encounters can be traced back through successive generations to the Buddha. Daido Roshi likens this process to his own family bloodlines. He elaborated on this when we spoke.
"Many of the things Maezumi Roshi passed on live in his disciples. I can say the same thing about the qualities of my father. I hardly knew him, but I believe it when people tell me that I'm like my father. With my teacher it's not a genetic thing, it's mind to mind. Yet what passed between us, between Maezumi and myself, has, I think, an as-yet-undiscovered genetics all its own."
Maezumi Roshi, having trained in three Zen lineages (including Rinzai and Soto), brought a sense of experimentation and integration that meshed well with American culture. Daido Roshi continued that spirit when he moved back to the East Coast in 1980 to start Zen Mountain Monastery, borrowing forms and teaching methods from the major schools of Japanese and Chinese Zen—as well as from Christianity—to sew an eclectic fabric of monastic practice.
Much of Daido Roshi's inspiration can be traced back to Dogen, the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master and philosopher who founded the Soto school. Daido Roshi has incorporated many of Dogen's monastic training methods into the daily schedule at Zen Mountain, and, like Maezumi Roshi, he has continually used Dogen's teachings as a model. In fact, the Mountains and Rivers Order (Daido Roshi's umbrella organization) borrows its name from the title of one of Dogen's sutras.
"The reason I identify so closely with Dogen," Daido Roshi says, "is that I have a sense that what we're trying to do here as first generation American Zen Buddhists is similar to what Dogen was trying to do as a first generation Japanese Zen Buddhist. He was bringing the dharma from a Chinese master and establishing it in Japan, making it Japanese. Basically, Dogen established the prototype of Zen monasticism in Japan."
Daido Roshi's interest in Dogen underscores his scholarly approach to Buddhism. He is working with Kaz Tanahashi to translate Dogen's classic Three Hundred Koan Shobogenzo, adding contemporary commentary. "It is a landmark in American Zen, what Daido Roshi is doing—bringing forward these thirteenth-century writings and integrating them into a twenty-first century context," says Tanahashi.
Nothing exemplifies Daido Roshi's vision and personality more than Zen Mountain Monastery itself. What was started as a Zen arts center on borrowed money has grown into a large, thriving community of both monastic and lay practitioners, with affiliated centers in the United States, Europe and New Zealand.
The 260-acre monastery is in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, on a site that seems plucked from a twelfth-century Chinese scroll painting. The large, stone main building sits on a bluff above the confluence of two rivers. Tremper Mountain rises behind in a curve of hardwoods and pine, a large garden overflows with flowers and vegetables, and the surface of a pond ripples in the wind.
But any sense that Zen Mountain is held in antiquity is dispelled as soon as the doors open. The question is not, "What do they do?" but rather, "What don't they do?" Besides the daily monastic schedule there are numerous (nearly every weekend) art, body, academic and wilderness retreats, as well as week-long sesshins (meditation intensives) held every month. Zen Mountain's prison outreach program, started in 1984, was the first of its kind, and its Zen Environmental Studies Center has been a model for other organizations for many years.
"The monastery offers a very wide mouth, a wide funnel of introduction to Zen," says Sensei Jan Chozen Bays. "There are many access points where people can enter. Once they connect, they can make a decision about which direction to head in, whether it's doing an art retreat, a week sesshin, or a month-long residency. Or they could decide to come into training and make Zen their profession."
Under the auspices of Dharma Communications (the cornerstone of the lay outreach program), the monastery runs a store; produces books, audio tapes and videos; publishes a quarterly journal (The Mountain Record), and offers an extensive web site. In continuing his integration of ancient and modern, Daido Roshi has not been shy in testing the use of computers, particularly via the Internet, to help spread the dharma.
"Daido tries to demonstrate that all of life is practice," comments Charles Prebish, a long-time friend of Daido Roshi's and author of Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America. "His use of computers is creative and forward-looking. It adds a new tool for reaching those folks unable to visit a practice community."
The core of the "training matrix" at the monastery is what Daido Roshi calls the Eight Gates. He describes them as "a modern statement of the Buddha's Eightfold Path." He lists them as: "Zazen—that's at the center of the whole thing; face-to-face teaching with the teacher; liturgy; the precepts—the moral and ethical teachings of Zen; academic study; work practice—how does all of this affect work and everyday life; art practice; and body practice—what's the relationship of body and mind."
To keep the training matrix running smoothly there's a very particular set of monastic rules and regulations and a strict schedule. Daido Roshi has been up front about what he expects from practitioners and has put into place a stringent code of conduct.
"Daido Roshi is meticulous in maintaining an ethical standard," says Charles Prebish. "He's an incredibly moral person, yet he is also incredibly kind. He's moral but in a playful way, in a way that lets the person 'hear' it without the perception of a put-down."
Richard Seager agrees: "There's nothing terribly sanctimonious about Daido Roshi or the monastery. He's really just a humanist, a Catholic boy from Jersey City."
All of this, Daido Roshi readily admits, could not be done without a dedicated group of monastics and lay people who work and practice side by side. This includes Daido Roshi's two dharma heirs, who have been strong innovators in their own right. Bonnie Myotai Treace has started Fire Lotus Temple, a lay practice center in downtown Brooklyn that brings the Eight Gates into the lives of city dwellers and offers a number of neighborhood social action programs. Geoffrey Shugen Arnold is the central figure behind the monastery's prison outreach program.
It is the mix of monastics and lay practitioners that is perhaps the monastery's most innovative and vital component. When I asked Daido Roshi if this mix has caused any tension or jealousy over the years, he admits to some upheaval. "People are people," he says, "but really the problems have been minimal. We place a strong emphasis on lay practice and have an extensive outreach program to support the lay sangha."
"But," Daido Roshi continues, "there's more to it than that. It must been seen in the light of Zen and the teachings of the non-dual dharma. In the monastery and in the world, in monastic practice and lay practice, all the dualities are completely intermingled. They're all one thing and that's the whole premise of 'no inside or outside.' There's no elitist practitioner and second-class citizen practitioner; it's all one practice. There's a group that does it one particular way because of their worldly responsibilities and there's a group that does it another way because they don't have those responsibilities. So it doesn't make one superior to the other. The monastics take care of the main house; they're there 24 hours a day and they make it available to the lay practitioners who come for various periods of time to recreate themselves. When a lay practitioner enters through the monastery doors, they are living a monastic life for as long as they're here, be it a day, a month, a year or more."
The thread of the "non-dual dharma" runs throughout Daido Roshi's teachings and the monastery's programs, yet it is perhaps most clearly seen in Daido Roshi's environmental ethic. It's no coincidence that in 1980—the year of Zen Mountain Monastery's inception—the first act performed by the Board of Directors was to designate 80% of the newly acquired 260 acres of monastery land as "forever wild," which meant and still means no manicuring, no managing, no controlling. If a tree falls, it falls where it falls and then rots—the ecological equivalent of "Let it go."
"Daido Roshi has been, like Gary Snyder, in the forefront of Buddhist environmental ethics. Not only is he a leading Zen master but he's a naturalist as well and brings to the table a sophisticated sensibility of ecosystems and responsible land management," says Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-editor of Buddhism and Ecology and Worldviews and Ecology.
Zen Mountain offers numerous wilderness retreats, has created an Environmental Studies Site on the monastery grounds, and has formed "The Green Dragons"—a watchdog group for the local watershed. It has also recently obtained acreage in the Adirondack Wilderness Preserve that will be home base for the newly formed Zen Environmental Studies Institute—a broad membership program (open to the public) that will include a sophisticated web site, education on Buddhist ecology, environmental monitoring, and watershed analysis.
"Usually when people look at the Buddhist precepts, they understand them in terms of human relationships," Daido Roshi said in a talk last year at Naropa University. "Do not kill. Do not steal. Do not lie. Of course these are about human relationships, but what do they mean in terms of the environment? There is a particular kind of stealing that we do when we clear-cut forests, when topsoil is washed into rivers. There is a particular kind of killing that we do when we wipe out whole species. These precepts are taught not only as they relate to humans but also how they relate to the environment, to the ten thousand things. Not only the sentient, 'feeling' beings—deer, muskrat, beaver—but to the rocks, trees and river. All of it."
The responsibility for the environment, Daido Roshi is quick to point out, is not held in abstract notions. It begins with what is under our skin: "The spider web and the Brooklyn Bridge are both works of nature. We must learn how the delicate dynamics of this unlikely relationship work. The earth's heart is big enough to hold both. The question is, how big is the heart we manifest?"
Underlying all that the Mountains and Rivers Order encompasses—the numerous programs, the monastic schedule, lay practice outreach, the prison program, the art and environmental retreats—is Daido Roshi's simple trust in an ancient, vital, open-hearted, yet difficult process.
"The attainment of our true nature is something no one can give us; each person has to do it alone," he says. "Zen wasn't invented yesterday. It is not a fad. It is simple and direct and very difficult. It challenges us to be with ourselves, to study the self, to forget the self and to be one with the ten thousand things.
"Zen is not Japanese and it's not Chinese. It is American. It didn't come from Asia; it has always been here. It is a way of using your mind and living your life and doing it with other people. Unfortunately nobody can supply a rule book to go by because what it is about can't be spoken of, and that which can be spoken of is not it. So we need to go deep in ourselves to find the foundation of it. Zen is a practice that has to do with liberation, not some kind of easy certainty. The wisdom of that liberation not only affects our lives but all those whom we come in contact with, all that we know, and all that we do." John Kain is a freelance writer and poet from New York.
Zen's Radical Conservative: John Daido Loori Roshi, John Kain, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.
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It's a bit disorienting driving north out of Manhattan and into Yonkers, a working class enclave in the middle of wealthy, suburban Westchester County. After crossing the narrow Harlem River on the Henry Hudson Bridge, the Saw Mill River Parkway threads north through Riverdale, then cuts into the city of Yonkers. Exit the highway, and just over the hill are pre-World War II apartment buildings, bodegas, tire repair shops, and other small neighborhood businesses. In this predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhood, the median annual income is $22,000. Continue east on the city streets and soon the Hudson River appears. Apartment buildings overlook it, but they are not the luxury units one might expect with such a commanding view of the waterway. (In fact, such units are being built below, as part of an urban redevelopment project, down by the docks on the river.) Up here they're old, weathered buildings inhabited by the working poor. Nestled by one of the buildings on Buena Vista Avenue sits a lot surrounded by a chain link fence that has been turned into a community garden. Corn, green beans, collard greens, tomatoes, peppers, cilantro and flowers grow in well-tended plots, many of them protected by espantapájaros-scarecrows made of old clothes, caps, sticks and broom handles. The garden is one of six started by the Greyston Foundation, which provides the seed and soil but leaves the planting and harvesting to anyone who wants a plot. Retirees, school children, parents and families grow vegetables and flowers in dozens of raised beds. School classes visit the gardens for environmental education projects. Barbecues, clean-ups and celebrations are held regularly. The non-profit foundation, founded by Zen teacher Bernard Glassman in 1982, views the gardens as a means of integrating itself into the surrounding community. "The gardens kind of ventilate Greyston," says Charles G. Lief, the executive director of the organization for the past nine years. "Right now we largely relate to people because they're homeless or they have AIDS or they're unemployed. But with the gardens, we're not dealing with people around their personal histories, we're simply dealing with people as a broader community-building exercise." Community has been a central theme of Greyston since a Zen group started a for-profit bakery 19 years ago with a mission to create jobs for chronically unemployed in the inner city. Since then, the bakery has grown to employ 55 people. Greyston has also built 140 housing units for the homeless, the elderly and low-income families; opened the largest AIDS treatment program in Westchester county; offered a child-care facility for working families and families moving from welfare to work; and created non-sectarian forums for spirituality, whether it's a council meeting for the community to share openly or pastoral counseling for people with HIV/AIDS. All told, Greyston's budget reached $11.5 million this year, funded by product sales, service fees, donations and government grants. Now, in perhaps its most dramatic project to date, Greyston is building a new $7 million bakery that will allow it to significantly expand its cramped 24-hour operation and hire and train even more workers. The new building was designed by architect Maya Lin, best known for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Greyston is also renovating another 40 low-income apartments in a former slum dwelling, and has purchased the first of four lots in downtown Yonkers where it will develop properties for affordable home ownership. Greyston views all of these activities as part of a larger mission to provide support for people along their life path. A formerly homeless mother living in Greyston housing, for example, might drop off her child at the day care so she can attend a job-training program at the bakery. As she regains stability, she might want one day to purchase a home under Greyston's home ownership program. "The vision for Greyston as a whole is a community, more so than being a social service agency or a combination of a social service agency and a for-profit business," says David Rome, senior vice president of the organization. "Part of that involves seeing everything we do in a holistic way." This contrasts with the traditional philanthropic model, which might be content with the worthwhile aim of providing services to people in need, whether a meal, medical care or shelter for the night. Says Lief, "What we think we are moving towards more profoundly is: how, when all the parts of Greyston fit together in a coherent whole, does it illuminate a path for somebody? That's the important work we do here-turning on the light." Informed by this approach, Greyston has become perhaps the foremost example of engaged Buddhism in North America. But it is also a non-denominational endeavor, open to all the spiritual traditions that one might find in a contemporary community. Many of its clients and staff are fundamentalist Christian, Baptist, Muslim, Jewish, or don't have any religious affiliation. "We've developed a workplace that looks like it's non-sectarian to people who don't want to self-identify as Buddhists," Lief says. "But at the same time, somebody can look at it and say these are really Buddhist-driven values here. Bridging that is an important part of the work."
Greyston's founder, Roshi Bernie Glassman, says in his book, Instructions to the Chef: A Zen Master's Lessons in Living a Life that Matters, that the most potent transformations occur when you embrace things you habitually reject. That process allows you to let go of preconceptions, clearing the way for a new approach. This doesn't mean that you forget the past; rather you let go of your attachment to it. Greyston, which Glassman started as an outgrowth of the Zen Community of New York, decided to work with those people who were habitually rejected by society. "Our culture doesn't just throw out things," he wrote, "we throw out people as well. But just because someone is homeless, or because someone has AIDS, or is mentally handicapped or gay or black or white or old or whatever, doesn't mean the person is garbage. We all have something to offer." He brought up the Buddhist metaphor of a lotus nourished in mud: "We can't just work with what we like about ourselves. We have to work with our muddy water." Glassman's book, written with the late Rick Fields, tells the story of Greyston's founding. An aerospace engineer turned monk, Glassman arrived in New York in 1979 to start a Zen community affiliated with Zenshu-ji temple in Los Angeles, led by Glassman's teacher, the late Taizan Maezumi Roshi. It supported itself by donations and fees from seminars and retreats held at a building it had purchased in Riverdale called the Greyston mansion. Seeking a broader impact from its work, the group looked into starting a business that might constitute right livelihood. The criteria for the business were: it should do no harm, become a vehicle for training and personal growth, support a growing community, be accessible to those without a background in the field, create jobs for many people, and become a venture in which they could excel. It should combine engagement, a commitment to social action, and sustainability. They settled on a bakery. Borrowing $300,000 from a donor, they opened up the facility in 1982. Soon, along with meditation sessions, they were churning out muffins, scones and cakes. By 1985, they were selling goods to restaurants and stores, and providing residents in the surrounding inner city with jobs. They eventually sold the mansion in Riverdale-while retaining its name-to move closer to their new community in Yonkers. Greyston is now located on the grounds of a former Catholic convent across from the Yonkers General Hospital. Glassman got support from other entrepreneurs with a social conscience, such as Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., the premium ice cream maker in South Burlington, Vermont. The company contracted Greyston to produce brownies for its Fudge Brownie ice cream flavor-a contract now worth $4 million a year, or 70% of the bakery's business. Greyston also expanded into providing housing for the homeless, with the first Greyston Family Inn building opening in 1991. A year later it formed Greyston Health Services for people with HIV/AIDS. In 1993, the Greyston Foundation was incorporated as the umbrella organization for these activities. Years before welfare-to-work programs, Greyston, like other community organizations, created a way for its members to try to achieve self-sufficiency. It didn't aim to "help" people. Rather, by providing training and entry-level jobs at the bakery, and a housing program in which the tenants governed the buildings, it sought to break the cycle of poverty and dependency. That's why Lief is sensitive about holding up its workers as poster children desperately in need of support. It's patronizing, he says, to use its workforce as a marketing vehicle to sell its baked goods. Instead, Lief says, what Greyston seeks to offer is "a high quality, competitively priced" product that happens also to further a "social mission." The difference is measured in dignity.
Charles Lief was attracted to Greyston by Glassman's goal of creating a Buddhist spiritual community that worked within the world-similar, say, to the work of United Jewish Communities or Catholic Charities. He came from the Shambhala community in Nova Scotia in 1992 to set up the AIDS treatment facility. David Rome came shortly after. Both had backgrounds in business (Lief was a lawyer, Rome a publisher), and had studied under the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of the Shambhala community. "We have a strong body of teaching that says work in the world is an essential part of being a complete practitioner," Lief says, "and somehow institutionally we haven't figured out how to do that." Greyston thus became a "missing piece" for Lief: "It was an important next step to feel that I was testing my value as a Buddhist practitioner." "Bernie had been very attracted early on to the mandala principle, a prominent feature in Tibetan Buddhism," Rome says. "And rightly or wrongly he thought we were mandala experts, having trained under Trungpa Rinpoche, and that we could come and give form to his vision." Greyston's strategic plan is based on the mandala principle, as applied to the organization overall and to the details of specific initiatives-even the financial projections one finds in a conventional business plan. Far from an abstraction, the mandala model is a guide to unify Greyston and point the way ahead. Glassman described the "Greyston Mandala" as a circle of life. It has four outer components-body, heart, mind and spirit-whose activities (or energies) are unified in a fifth component, the self. At the most basic level, a person needs food, clothing and shelter. In the mandala, this is the realm of the body and the activity of enrichment. Emotions, relations and love form the second sphere, heart, whose activity is healing. Knowledge and intellect are the elements of the third sphere, mind, whose activity is clarifying. The fourth element, spirit, is defined as transpersonal and universal experience, and empowering is its activity. The self integrates all the spheres and thus has a unifying energy. But the model doesn't just apply to the individual; it also applies to the organization. Thus, for example, the realm of the body becomes the realm of wealth in the Greyston Mandala, since this sphere provides shelter and jobs for the community through the Greyston Family Inn and Greyston Bakery. Health care, day care, the gardens-each has its place in the mandala and correspond with specific energies. At the center is the administration, coordinating the parts and planning for the future. The mandala isn't a static model; it can be used to examine the purpose of activities and understand where they are leading. A homeless man entering Greyston with a substance abuse problem, for example, would first focus on the body and heart to begin turning his life around. In practical terms, he would secure safe housing and then work on physical and emotional health. When those aspects became stabilized, the other realms of the mandala (mind and spirit) might become a larger focus in his life. This evolutionary process plays into a second Buddhist concept applied at Greyston: path. "It's really a question of just how tired you become of who you are in a neurotic sense," says Lief. "If you get tired enough of who you are, you figure out creative ways to break out. And breaking through that wall of resistance is really the beginning of a definition of path." Essentially, it's a recognition that each individual is on their own path, in relationship with the larger community. Greyston even hired a vice president for pathmaker services last year, who has started working with formerly homeless families and entry level workers on these issues. "It is clearly intended for everyone in the organization, starting with board members and volunteers," Rome says. "I have this vision in which everyone who becomes part of Greyston could articulate what it is they are working on in their life through their involvement with Greyston." How does the Buddhist approach actually inform the day-to-day work at Greyston? It appears in the silence observed before a meeting is held, allowing the participants to slow down, get in touch with their inner state, gather their thoughts and focus on the issues at hand. It manifests itself in "listening practice," a mindfulness approach Greyston has adopted that recognizes the importance of being present and of listening to others. "For me, that is the realization of Buddhism, more so than something explicit like we practice mediation together," Rome says. Judith Lief, who works as a Buddhist pastoral counselor at the Maitri Day Center, says she comes across Buddhist concepts all the time in her work with AIDS patients, but she doesn't bring them up. They arise in the work itself. She feels her challenge is to make patients aware of Buddhist practices or ways of thinking about problems that might help them. So, for example, she teaches mindfulness meditation to provide a way for people to deal with physical ailments through relaxation and insight. She also holds sessions that deal with death and dying-among people who are literally fading away. "I wanted to try and expand my language to see how Buddhist practice translates to people coming from a working class background, or from less educated backgrounds or from the streets," she says. But more often than not, it's the patients who address issues in a way that resonates with her own understanding. "There's an issue that comes up over and over, which is forgiveness," she says. "Many of the people I've met contracted AIDS from partners who did not disclose they were HIV positive. So finding that out-usually under strange circumstances-leads to tremendous anger." At the same time, through telling their stories, many realize that "the anger they are feeling is damaging themselves more than anyone else. Questions come up: 'How do you let go of that? How do you forgive?' Now I don't bring that up at all; these are things I've learned from them." She goes on to say that the openness to address these issues stems from the fact that these people rarely "experience genuine respect. So even the slightest bit of respect and the slightest bit of being willing to listen reveals these treasure troves of issues and insights and confusion." The work at the Maitri center can be overwhelming at times, she admits. And this presents something of a challenge to a Buddhist practitioner, since "you're supposed to be expanding your capacity to relate to the actual suffering all around in the world. Over time how do you do that? After spending four or five hours at Maitri center, you come back home and feel like you've been at work for about 12 years." This has given her a deeper respect for the people who do this work every day, and it has also enriched her practice. "It's inspiring to me how much spirit and soul people have in the midst of this tremendously difficult life," she says. "That people still have a sense of humor, that they are still very humble, that they are very insightful and don't totally give up. It's very humbling that way."
In a wood-paneled conference room, a dozen or so chairs are set up in a circle. On one sits a picture of Sandra Jishu Holmes, Roshi Glassman's late wife, who began a practice called "council." Each month, anyone in the Greyston community can come to the meeting and bring up whatever is on their mind. It is open to clients, staff, administrators and the occasional visitor. The only requirement is that people talk from the heart and listen from the heart. They also agree not to talk about what transpires within the circle. The session borrows on the Native American practice of the talking stick. Each person who holds the carved and painted stick can speak. When they are finished talking, they pass the stick to the next person. And so on-the conversation deepening as the stick gets passed again and again, even though the circular nature of the process does not encompass the traditional Western notion of dialogue. At the end of the session, which lasts for perhaps two hours, the room feels much closer. Some people who have never met each other hug in recognition of the stories told. What's most surprising is that this session has taken place in the confines of a social service organization. Yet there is nothing "institutional" about what transpires. It's a sharing of personal stories by people who live and work in a community, with an honesty that's palpable. Perhaps this is the real prize of this Buddhist-inspired approach. It's a way of listening, a way of relating, a way of gardening-nothing more. If Greyston can maintain its explicit Buddhist identity in the future, Rome says, "I would be very happy. But it's more important that it continues doing genuine work."
Samuel Fromartz is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., and a participant in the Capitol Hill Mindfulness Community.
A Path, Not a Program: Greyston Mandala, Samuel Fromartz, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.
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In Norman Cousins' 1979 bestseller, Anatomy of an Illness, the noted editor and writer described how, flat on his back in bed, he was able to belly laugh himself well by watching Marx Brothers movies and reading books of humor. Every ten minutes of genuine laughter, he said, "had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep."
The Book of Proverbs tells how "a merry heart doeth good as medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones." So, in face of evidence old and new, just in time for the new millennium, "Laughter Clubs" are spreading communicable giggles across the globe.
"YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD WITH LAUGHTER! PROMOTE HEALTH AND WORLD PEACE!" Yes, world peace. I can hear you now: "Ha!" you're saying. See? Made you laugh. In order to examine what method may lay behind this mirthness, I signed up for the training session to become a Laugh Leader. Okay, so the truth is I couldn't afford to "Track the Path of Rumi" through Turkey in ten days for $3500. Or to do Dr. Virtue's Angel Therapy either, available at a much lower price in Van Nuys. And because my two sisters, Jill and Nancy, live in San Diego, accommodations for the WLT (World Laughter Tour) would be sweet.
Invented in India by a Dr. Madan Kataria, more than 200 laughter clubs have now been established, meeting before work for twenty minutes of fun and gains. Now, thanks to Steve Wilson, an Ohio "joyologist," Dr. Kataria's smile assemblies have headed west. We need lightness after all, in these days of rolling blackouts, military blunders, and Bush. As clown/poet/avatar Wavy Gravy once told me, "You know, Zippy"-my clown name at the time-"if you lose your sense of humor, it just isn't funny anymore." Luckily, here's the good news! Former Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop said recently that evidence shows "laughter protects the heart." I take these findings very seriously. I happen to do freelance work as a semi-professional fool (though I prefer the term "humorist"). Yes, I go from town to town, hovel to hovel, singing in my wackiest postmodern Willy Loman voice, "Jokes for sale! Who will buy this wonderful funny?"
But sadly, humor now tastes like burgers; it's just another watered-down to the bottom line quick fix fed 24/7 to an entertainment-nation full of junk junkies. I expect the laughter to do more, so much more. The comedy should "reveal the grace of the sufferer," in the words of John Hawks. I want the laughter that gives us power over politicians, that is our defiance and our victory, as Martin Buber said. Why? Because "they say truth comes into this world with two faces: sad suffering and laughs. But it is the same face" (the Talmud). Because "it is the duty of the humor of any given nation to attack the catastrophe that faces it so the people who laugh at it do not die before they are killed." (Hallelujah, Lord Buckley!)
I've had that transcendent vision of laughter, as it lifts up, teaches and serves. But can it really heal, and still get a few nyuk-nyuks on the way? My motivation for trying this WLT is so I can be part of that new wave where, as Mark Twain wrote, "against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand."
"Angels are the laugh of the universe." -Alan Watts
So here we are, thirty people in a room: nurses, doctors, counselors and dairy farmers, ages 30 to 70. Plus, a nice man with a jolly white goatee, joyologist Steve Wilson, who's president of the Laughter Clubs of America. Right now he's blowing a wooden train whistle to get our attention. He's full of little goofy tricks like this. He first developed this class at Columbus State Community College and teaches with the ebullience of the two great Yogis: Bear and Berra.
Did you know only 5% of people can tell a joke well? Steve cites such statistics. No wonder the U.S. spends $9.2 billion a year on various "stress reduction" sessions held daily in offices-at-risk-of too much seriousness-across the continent.
"Our method is non-threatening," Steve assures us. "Nobody has to be a comedian because it doesn't rely on telling jokes or making comedy." Some call his method "self-induced laughter," laughter for the joy of laughing, based around a systematic structure that encourages people to get involved.
"In today's world, most people don't find much to laugh at," he continues. "They don't have time to laugh. Or they know they don't laugh enough. They want the bigger car, the faster modem. This takes the joy out of life."
Steve has trained over fifty leaders so far. "And you don't have to have a sense of humor at all," he grins secretively. "You can still come week to week and receive great benefits." His co-facilitators today resemble that remark, as neither seems very funny at all. (Perhaps, like Lord Byron, they "laugh to keep from weeping.") The joyologist submits findings for our approval, just published in the March issue of Nature Neuroscience: "A new study, which investigated how the human brain processes jokes, identified a particular area of the brain that appears to be involved in your sense of humor. Lead author Dr. Vinod Goel said that this area is known as the medial ventral prefrontal cortex."
A believer in "right livelihood" and Buddhist loving-kindness, Dr. Kataria's original technique is being used in prisons and nursing homes. We watch laughter club footage from Sweden and Denmark, not known as funny countries. (Well, Denmark. Maybe.) We see a video of Steve's cousin Kenny laughing for fifteen seconds. Then we're up and standing in a circle repeating the following WLT mantra: "Ho-Ho! Ha-Ha-Ha!" while slapping our thighs and clapping in unison.
Huh? Half a minute of breathing and then we move into what he calls the "Vowel Movements," where we lean over and lift up again reciting "A" or "E" or the others, while faking a laugh. "Fake it 'til you make it" goes a watchword of WLT faith. "Simulation leads to Stimulation" is another. We make some funny faces at each other for awhile. This must be the "yoga" part of the practice I saw advertised. Suffice it to say, the eight limbs of yoga are not at risk.
After twenty minutes of this, Suzy, a comedic performer from New York-and my ride back to LA-tells me she wants to leave the conference early. She is, in fact, rather depressed by the whole program.
Steve notices and sends a shout-out. "Even if there's no stimulus, you can find humorous!"
"Look," he suggests. "Babies laugh in the crib. We don't say, 'Gee, that kid's got a great sense of humor.' It is something very innate and primal we're doing."
Karyn Buxam and Jacki Kwan, his co-facilitators, explain that these fake laughs are good at getting rid of toxins too. That any outward breath is good.
Suzy says she hasn't had a real laugh the whole weekend. "Coughing is good," I try encouraging her. I'm not about to leave. Soon we'll have a break, and speech pathologist Pam Wilson, Steve's wife and road manager/marketing guru, will serve up ice cream sundaes.
Eventually, refilling my bowl with nothing but syrup, I corner Suzy: "If you laugh you can change the world," I pitch her. I believe this too. Dr. Meatloaf, a friend of mine, is a clown in the Big Apple Circus hospital clown care unit. He once told me that if he made his mom and dad laugh before they hit him, they couldn't hit him. Dr. Meatloaf had a whole theory behind it. "Levity is the opposite of gravity," he would say, quoting Monty Python. Big Apple sends their CCU - s into 15 cities now.
I beg Suzy to at least try to appreciate Steve's leadership training. Although I must agree with her: "Ho-Ho, Ha-Ha-Ha" is a bit lame-o. Do these unfunny facilitators need us to laugh at them so they feel funny? Or do they know they aren't and so make us pay for it? Never make light of the great market out there for misery. Factories manufacture unhappiness in every province.
I am too cynical. I need to try and turn this paranoia into pro-noia, a meditation technique I learned from a San Francisco anarchist bicyclist named Tet. Pro-noia is the belief that the world is out to help us. I tell Suzy, "Coughing is good!"
"If You Laugh And Believe It Is Good For You…You Are Right!" says one of the joyologist's bumper stickers. Which makes sense. "Honk, Honk, if you Love to Laugh" is one of his stickers that doesn't make much sense to Suzy.
"Laughter isn't funny, it is a reaction to funny things, and is tied to subconscious feelings about defensiveness and social correctness, among other things." -Avner the Eccentric
Each workshop member gets two solo minutes. Steve asks us to please "listen with soft eyes." No judgment. Nice. And the people in here are the greatest, especially the nurses. All Praise All Nurses! Mary Dixon from Santa Rosa started her own hospital humor program and does clowning and pain management. Arlene Vine's passion is working with elders. "What I give to them I get back tenfold. And with my Alzheimer's patients, I make new friends every day!"
Her insight reminds the joyologist of one definition of Jewish humor: "Laughter with sadness in the eye."
Janice Griffin, an RN from Monterey, tells me about a "Journal of Nursing Jocularity" that used to publish her jokes. Chekesha Showers is a 22-year veteran of the Los Angeles School District whose name means "bringer of laughter" in Swahili. There is an optometrist-clown from New Jersey and an educator named Arya Pathria who suggests we "make the person in the mirror laugh every morning." (How impossibly difficult!) Joanne VanGorder, 70, has a TV show in Prescott, AZ called "Senior Focus." She calls herself "a global warmer."
Here's one thing I learned: Did you know women laugh more than men? "Yep, we're amazed and amused at their stupidity," says one unnamed Canadian lady clown.
"And you make such great straight men," a nurse-humorist concurs.
During my turn to speak, I'm a bit nervous, but gosh if these unfunny co-facilitators don't soon force me into doing the old Hokey-Pokey dance. But not the way I remember it as a kid. "You put your Ha-Ha in, you put your Ho-Ho out!" shouts Jacki Kwan. "You do the Hokey-Pokey and you turn yourself around, that's what it's all about!"
"When something is really bad, you laugh, and when something is really good, you laugh." -Rwandan saying
"Human beings are the only creatures that can laugh," Steve tells the class. "No contribution that enhances the mirth of the world is too small."
I ask how tough will it be to be a laughter leader in a cruel cruel world? Steve remains grinstruck. "Remember," he says, "there is no setback, no obstacles. There is only amazed and amused." Then why can't I just let go, or let God get me giggling, after all my years of Guided Imagery, Thought Field Therapy, Biblical Kabbalah, Tennis without Partners?
These days you pick your own potion/poison, as John Lennon sang, "Whatever gets you through the night." Like my friend Suzy. She is using "Ho-Ho, Ha-Ha-Ha" after all. On stage. And you know what? She gets plenty of laughs teaching it to the audience. Because she's damn funny.
Everyone's heard of tough love. I guess I'm a tough laugh. For there is nothing innately funny in doing a weak Hokey-Pokey with 32 strangers and no alcohol. It's like doing the hora with Mormons, but without any sense of danger. However, this embarrassing experience did make me recall a line I heard from Pete Breitmeyer, an actor from Dudley Riggs comedic theater in Minneapolis: "What if the Hokey-Pokey IS what it's all about?"
"You don't have to teach people to be funny. You only have to give them permission." -Dr. Harvey Mindess
Dr. Mindess was at the American Association for Therapeutic Humor conference the same weekend I attended the WLT. The AATH helps people develop and improve their sense of humor as a way of creating wellness.
Robin Shlein, a comedy producer with credits dating back to the early years of "Saturday Night Live," studied with Dr. Mindess. Now she leads "Humor Heals" workshops for the Wellness Community, a cancer support center in Santa Monica. "You have to give them permission to laugh at what might be taboo," Shlein explains. "Things like death and dying. And permission to allow themselves to look for humor, irony and absurdity in the most painful circumstances."
So this is perhaps a truer path to health than the "Ho-Ho, Ha-Ha-Ha" technique. It was Stan Laurel, no mere ha-ha-ha he, who said it best: "You have to learn what people will laugh at, and then proceed accordingly."
When Suzy drags me out of the San Diego hotel conference room, my classmates gather to give us what our leader Steve Wilson calls, "The Farewell Laugh." I'm immediately thinking how maudlin this is. I mean, how can you ever have the last laugh, unless you then die? But like the "Night of the Laughing Dead," thirty people in WLT tee shirts come at me. I dash from the room, involuntarily emitting a sickening screech.
I'm awarded a certificate in which I am designated a "Certified Laughter Leader." I am now authorized to organize USA Laughter Clubs and present therapeutic laughter programs; I may "acknowledge my affiliation to World Laughter Tour, Inc., and use the Laughter Club logo in print material."
Later I ask Steve Wilson by phone how he really plans to achieve world peace. "By changing attitudes," he says quickly. "Anger, hatred, fear and strife come out of people because that's what inside of them. Squeeze an orange, you get orange juice. If we can get more humor, more tolerance, if we can get more of the spirit of laughter inside of people, that's what's gonna come out." He predicts a laughter club at the United Nations, laughter contests among leaders of different lands. "Although comedians occasionally bomb, it would be better if countries traded comedians instead of bombs," he laughs.
Don't I know it. Happy is the weapon I wear in the war of all against all. I stole that line from the playwright Mac Wellman, who took it from the philosopher John Locke. Here's what Groucho Marx said: "Reverence and irreverence are really the same thing." Which is something Norman Cousins understood, I think. The genuine laughter that John Hobbes called a "passion of sudden glory," Cousins truly felt as "jogging for the innards."
So is this WLT all about the laughs, the kicks, the money? Steve had urged us to buy the book Laughing for No Reason. Sixty per cent of sales go to India for their clubs. Isn't it true that the best laughs often come for free? Dr. Kataria himself said, "Laughter is free. You can't charge anybody anything." (Although then he said he has started charging because, "It is eating into my time and my family is not eating.")
Hank Rosenfeld is a humorist who has recently started an online healing/consulting service, co-facilitated by the entertainer Anne Randolph, star of solo shows "Loveland" and "Squeezebox." Sign up at
Ho-Ho! Ha-Ha-Ha!: On the World Laughter Tour, Hank Rosenfeld, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.
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